Which Airports Will Give Wings to the Next Pandemic?

26 July 2012 Knowing how bugs will spread through the population is critical to containing epidemics—and airports play a huge role in the global spread of disease. Although mathematical models have attempted to predict how individual airports influence contagion, the…

26 July 2012

Knowing how bugs will spread through the population is critical to containing epidemics—and airports play a huge role in the global spread of disease. Although mathematical models have attempted to predict how individual airports influence contagion, the models often looked at the later stages of an epidemic, or assumed that travellers moved randomly. A new simulation from MIT predicts the spread of a disease in its first ten days, and takes into account the fact that each human is travelling to a specific desired destination rather than bouncing randomly from airport to airport. Using these assumptions, and information about individual airports, the new model ranks U.S. airports by their influence as disease spreaders.

You might expect that the airports with the most connections and traffic would wind up being “super spreaders.” And this certainly holds true for the top two airports on the list, New York City’s JFK and Los Angeles’s LAX. But how did Honolulu’s airport nab the third-place spot? It has a mere fraction of the traffic that flows through Atlanta International, the airport with the most flights but which ranked eighth in infectious potential. It turns out that when humans don’t move randomly, an airport’s location in the transportation network becomes more important than its volume of traffic. Whereas Atlanta’s connections are primarily regional, Honolulu funnels travellers on their way to major international hubs. So when disease strikes…you may want to avoid Hawaii.

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